Congress, fired IRS chief clash

Kevin G. Hall,William Douglas

The embattled and departing head of the IRS on Friday defended as proper the actions taken by IRS employees who selected for close scrutiny tea party groups and other conservative organizations.

Testifying before a heated, partisan hearing by the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Steven Miller, acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, repeatedly pushed back against Republican lawmakers who insisted that conservatives were, and are still, being “targeted.”

The term targeting is pejorative, Miller insisted, trying to explain that what actually happened is that terms such as “tea party” and “patriot” were used as shortcuts to identify groups that might not actually be social welfare organizations as required, but rather political groups with campaign motives.

That didn’t sit well with GOP members, who all but accused Miller of committing perjury during congressional hearings last year in which he testified that he was unaware of targeting of certain groups.

“Why did you mislead Congress and the American people on this?” asked Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., prompting Miller to angrily counter, “I did not mislead Congress and the American people. I answer the questions.”

President Barack Obama fired Miller on Wednesday. He will leave the agency in June.

When it was his turn, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican 2012 vice presidential nominee and favorite of tea party organizations, went back at Miller to repeat that he and his predecessor, Bush administration appointee Doug Shulman, were untruthful in their prior testimony.

“How can we not conclude that you misled this committee,” asked Ryan.

“I did not mislead this committee,” Miller replied. “I stand by my answer then. I stand by my answer now.”

"We selected, to be blunt, more than tea party cases.”

Republican lawmakers did get Miller to concede that a question offered last Friday at a conference of the American Bar Association that set off a political firestorm in Washington was actually a plant. Miller said that Celia Roady, a partner in the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and member of the IRS advisory committee on tax-exempt entities, had prior discussions with IRS official Lois Lerner and asked a planted question.

Lerner’s response, which included an apology for inappropriate treatment of certain conservative applicants, set in motion a chain of political events that led this week to Miller’s ouster.

Under questioning, Miller said the decision to make the information public came after a report by a Treasury Department inspector was concluded, but acknowledged that it preceded any attempt to share the information with Congress.

In another surprise, Miller acknowledged that he had promoted the woman who had partial oversight over the controversial Cincinnati-based tax-exempt designations office to a new post that will handle requirements imposed on the IRS by the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul. The IRS will be receiving paystub information to determine who is eligible for subsidized health care coverage.

To the frustration of Republican lawmakers, Miller did not provide the names of lower-level employees who made the initial decision to flag certain conservative groups for closer scrutiny. He did say that one had been reassigned, while a number of managers were brought in for greater training about criteria for selecting applications for closer looks.

It’s likely that not just Republican lawmakers will want those answers. The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the IRS flagging of conservative applicants and will presumably seek to question those involved in the matter.

In one of the few mea culpas, Miller echoed a complaint of many taxpayers in noting the agency did a poor job communicating with citizens on the matter.

“We provided horrible customer service here,” he said. “Whether it was politically motivated or not is a very different question.”

The fired IRS chief said he resigned because the buck stopped at his desk, even if he had no personal involvement in the wrongdoing. He said that he and the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration found no evidence of political influence from outside the agency. But Miller acknowledged that he had conversations with Treasury Department officials – technically his bosses – last year about the inappropriate use of criteria to identify potentially problematic applications.

Texas Republican Rep. Kevin Brady all but accused the Obama administration of government-wide political targeting of tea party groups on a broad scale. He cited a woman who owns a small business in his district, who, after applying for a tax-exempt designation for a local tea party chapter, was subsequently subjected to visits from Labor Department inspectors, four inquiries from the FBI and domestic terrorism agents, and a visit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“The broader question here is, is this still America?” asked Brady, known in Congress for theatrics.

Treasury’s special inspector general, Republican appointee J. Russell George, testified before the committee that he’s found no evidence of a wider problem, influence from outside the organization, or corruption within the IRS.

By Kevin G. Hall and William Douglas
McClatchy Newspapers